Increased prefrontal and parahippocampal activation with reduced dorsolateral prefrontal and insular cortex activation to food images in obesity: a meta-analysis of fMRI studies

PLoS One. 2013 Apr 10;8(4):e60393. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0060393. Print 2013.


Background and objectives: Obesity is emerging as the most significant health concern of the twenty-first century. A wealth of neuroimaging data suggest that weight gain might be related to aberrant brain function, particularly in prefrontal cortical regions modulating mesolimbic addictive responses to food. Nevertheless, food addiction is currently a model hotly debated. Here, we conduct a meta-analysis of neuroimaging data, examining the most common functional differences between normal-weight and obese participants in response to food stimuli.

Data source: We conducted a search using several journal databases and adhered to the 'Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-analyses' (PRISMA) method. To this aim, 10 studies were found with a total of 126 obese participants, 129 healthy controls, equaling 184 foci (146 increased, 38 decreased activation) using the Activation Likelihood Estimation (ALE) technique. Out of the 10 studies, 7 investigated neural responses to food versus non-food images.

Results: In response to food images, obese in comparison to healthy weight subjects had increased activation in the left dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, right parahippocampal gyrus, right precentral gyrus and right anterior cingulate cortex, and reduced activation in the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and left insular cortex.

Conclusions: Prefrontal cortex areas linked to cognitive evaluation processes, such as evaluation of rewarding stimuli, as well as explicit memory regions, appear most consistently activated in response to images of food in those who are obese. Conversely, a reduced activation in brain regions associated with cognitive control and interoceptive awareness of sensations in the body might indicate a weakened control system, combined with hypo-sensitivity to satiety and discomfort signals after eating in those who are prone to overeat.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Case-Control Studies
  • Food*
  • Hippocampus / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Obesity / physiopathology*
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiopathology*
  • Visual Perception*

Grants and funding

The authors’ work is supported by the Swedish Research Council and Brain Research Foundation. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.